TV show Hidden Wales leaves you in awe at the beauty this country has to offer in one scene before making you feel extremely claustrophobic the next. Carl Marsh got to spend a bit of time Zooming with presenter Will Millard – not a native of Wales, but who now calls it home.
How did you end up settling down here in south Wales?
Back in 2009, I got my first proper grant as an expedition leader, to go to New Guinea, where I’d already been doing a lot of work. And at the time, when I wasn’t on an expedition I was working in television, just as a runner – getting involved in production and documentaries. But I was working in the BBC’s Science & History department – so I started looking at the credits of programmes where they were doing things that were more to my kind of field of interest.
At the time, there were effectively only two companies in the country that were making anthropology documentaries, one in London and the other in Cardiff. So I wrote to them both, and as luck would have it the guys in Cardiff invited me down, loaned me a camera for about six months, and I went back to New Guinea. They gave me a job when I came back, and I became a researcher. And yeah, I fell in love with south Wales – you know, I absolutely loved it.
There’s no way on this planet I’d do some of the stuff you get up to, like caving! Where do you get your sense of daring from?
Do you know, with the caving I was alright with it: we did a lot of it in the first series of Hidden Wales. Yet with cave diving, I always said – even as a relatively experienced scuba diver – I will never, ever do that! I have this clear childhood memory of watching Michael Buerk’s 999 Lifesavers and this scout group go to this cave, and have to go underneath the water. One of them pops up in a different chamber, and he’s not seen for days – he nearly starved to death.
I’m thinking, “I will never do that as long as I live,” but my producer and my director have a way of persuading me to do stuff… and suddenly there I was, rigged up doing the cave diving course. You go into this overhead environment, a flooded silicon mine, which is what we’re doing in the copper episode of Hidden Wales 2 that’s on the BBC iPlayer now. And mate, it was one of the most staggeringly beautiful and peaceful environments I’ve ever been in – but getting me to that point and doing the training was absolutely terrifying.
I get claustrophobic watching you do some of that stuff! You must have nerves of steel.
As much as I’d love to sit here and be like, “Oh yes, thank you Carl, you’re right, I am so brave and courageous!”, the truth is that I’m probably just as nervous and apprehensive as an average person. I guess one of the things that Hidden Wales teaches you pretty quickly, certainly in terms of what I’ve done in my career, is the rewards for suffering that little bit of discomfort and getting through it: learning how to control your fear, or at least channel that fear into a kind of hyperawareness that could save your life when it does go wrong.
Still, it brings you to these absolutely magnificent places. In the first episode of the new series, we went into caves; Martin, a legendary south Wales cave diver, took me to a place called the Cloud Chamber at Dan yr Ogof. You can see the fibreglass dinosaurs when you go into the main chambers, and there’s this bit where it says ‘no entry’. Obviously we jumped over that, and then before we knew it we were in this feature called the Endless Crawl. It’s certainly a Ronseal cave – it does what it says on the tin!
It was super tight – you can’t see the fellow in front of you. You can feel their gear hitting the base of your feet, it’s just complete compression, and then eventually we popped out and lit this cave chamber up. Man… I mean, I say this in the programme, and I’m not a particularly spiritual man, but I talk about how the bind between the spiritual world and the world we live in is narrow. You stand in a place like that, and it is like a cathedral. It’s amazing – jaw-dropping, when you consider relatively few people get to see those things in person. You can’t help but be struck with a sense of immense privilege at being able to bring all the kit down there, light it up, and then make it look epic on the screen for other people to enjoy.
It makes all the discomfort worth it – so when it is awful, you’re like [to yourself] “Come on, just push on, it will be worth it.” I still watch myself in those sequences, on television in the comfort of my living room with my wife and kids, and think “look at that nutter, he must be mad.”
This second season is now in 30-minute segments rather than an hour, perhaps making it more palatable to the younger generation. Whose idea was it to change the length format?
It was the BBC, I can’t take credit for that! When we tried to get Hidden Wales recommissioned, we submitted it originally as hours but it was them that came up with halves – and I believe you’re right, it has gone down well. Series one is very much geography-based: one episode was in north Wales, episode two was mid-Wales, and then episode three was south Wales. This time we went for subjects, as a result of being presented with half-hours, and having that tight focus made us connect a bit closer as a production team. It wasn’t that scattergun approach, where we were visiting lots and lots of different sites within a geographic area. We were able to narrow the search down to just one specific thing, whether it was World War II, or coal, or slate, or copper, or engineering.
What are your plans for series three?
We might be going back to doing geography – maybe microgeography if we’re doing half-hours again, maybe the Isle Of Anglesey or the Llŷn Peninsula, maybe city-specific. Or something a bit leftfield, even going back to what we’d done in the past, just looking at one river.
I think in terms of people’s – especially young audiences’ – attention span, you’re dead right; you wouldn’t get six, seven or eight-year-olds sitting down for an hour and watching a thesis. So it’s really worked, and luckily continues to be popular, which is incredible. We’re really passionate about what we do, and it’s unreal as the presenter – but it needs to reach people with that shared passion and build up an audience, to make sure that you can keep it front and centre. We’re starting the research and the pre-production now, hoping to pitch six half-hours again.
Hidden Wales can be watched via BBC iPlayer here.
words CARL MARSH
Check out the interview we did with Will back in 2018 – Will has many strings to his bow, here he sits down with us to chat about the big conflicts that arose during his year with the tribe.